The Next Big Bang: Human Consciousness & the Universe’s Ultimate Secret (2)
Read the first part of the article
‘Uncertainty Principle’ Neuters Newtonian Physics
Still, as far as the quantum theory was concerned, great new strides were being made. Physicist Nick Herbert tells us, for instance, that, “By the late [nineteen] twenties physicists had constructed a quantum theory adequate to their needs: they possessed, thanks to the work of Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac, rough mathematical tools that organised their quantum facts to a remarkably accurate degree. At this point Hungarian-born world-class mathematician John von Neumann entered the picture. Von Neumann put physicists’ crude theory into more rigorous form, settling quantum theory into an elegant mathematical home called ‘Hilbert space’, where it resides to this day, and awarded the mathematician’s seal of approval to the physicists brand-new theory of matter.”
But the enigma of light continued to plague quantum theory, and it is precisely here where the old physics of determinism and cause and effect began to unravel. In 1927, for instance, German physicist Werner Heisenberg authored his now famous uncertainty principle, the intellectual consequences of which did great mischief to Newtonian physics. Heisenberg was at the time attempting to measure the precise speed and position of a particle in order to predict its future position – a process that should have been entirely within the accepted parameters of Newtonian physics. But Heisenberg discovered that this could not be done.
British physicist Stephen Hawking tells us that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle indicated unequivocally that “the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa.” This finding sent shock waves rippling through physics. “Moreover,” Hawking tells us, “this limit does not depend on the way in which one tries to measure the position or velocity of the particle, or on the type of particle: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is a fundamental, inescapable property of the world.”
In a very real sense, Heisenberg’s principle delivered a body blow to Newtonian physics. Because, if the precise state of the universe was impossible to measure at any given moment, then any state either before or after was also impossible to calculate. It was as simple as that. Laplace had been wrong. Determinism, material cause and effect, even the forward moving arrow of time surely appeared to be “on the ropes.”
Suddenly, many of the underlying presumptions upon which classical physics rested had seemingly evaporated into thin air due to Heisenberg’s principle. What was going to replace them? Moreover, what did Heisenberg’s findings actually mean? How could it be that aspects of the material universe were, had always been, and would always be, utterly beyond our ability to measure?
And there was still more damage as a result of Heisenberg’s new principle. Because, if particles could not be clearly defined in terms of their position and movement, then particles could no longer be clearly defined as material objects anymore. If, after all, the position and movement of a particle could not be described with precision, then in a sense a particle could only be described with imprecision – a mathematical approximation.
A photon, for instance, could no longer be considered a discrete particle, but rather a combination – part particle, part wave – or a mathematical description now called a wave function. Even more importantly, if the manner by which a particle was measured (or observed) altered the resultant observation (a fact Heisenberg had demonstrated), then it followed logically that observation itself had to be a fundamental aspect of reality. Physics had been thrown for a loop.
A World of Pure Possibility… Magic
Indeed, some physicists, Heisenberg included, began to interpret the wave part of the particle/wave aspect of light as meaning that particles became particles only when observed, and remained waves (that is, in a state of material potential) when not observed. This, of course, was an extraordinary claim, something that many physicists thought sounded disturbingly akin to ancient superstition, like magic or voodoo. What Heisenberg and his colleagues were suggesting, in essence, was that the unseen world of quantum mechanics was not a material realm at all, but a realm rather of pure potential.
That’s right: quantum researchers like Heisenberg argued that the fountainhead of the physical universe appeared to be utterly immaterial. And as damaging as all of this was to classical physics, even more shocking news was on the way. Because if the foundation of our physical reality arose from a source of pure potential (was not material at all), then what, exactly, was this non-physical stuff? Could it even be called stuff? At this point in time many scientists became dizzy just trying to get a handle on the facts, and who could blame them?
Nick Herbert explains the next leap in logic that took place. “If we take quantum theory seriously, it seems to demand that the world before an observation is made up of pure possibility. But if everything around us is only possible not actual, then out of what solid stuff do we construct the device that will make our first observation? Either there are some physical systems whose operations unaccountably evade the quantum rules or there are nonphysical systems not made of multivalued possibility, but of single-valued actuality – systems that exist in definite states capable of interacting in an observational capacity on indefinite quantum-style matter.”
Yet it was clear that all material systems consisted of particles, and that these particles always obeyed the rules of quantum mechanics (not individually, but in statistical aggregates), because these rules had been tested and verified throughout countless experiments. “On the other hand,” Herbert continues, “we are aware of at least one nonphysical system that not only can make observations but actually does so as part of its function in the world – the psychological system we call human consciousness.”
This assertion, while sound mathematically and entirely logical, was so startling that it literally turned classical physics on its head. A science that had accepted as utterly valid a universe constructed of, and driven by, material particle movement was told suddenly that it had had it all wrong from the very beginning. And make no mistake about it, that’s exactly what was being said. “The general idea of von Neumann and his followers,” Herbert explains, “is that the material world by itself is hardly material, consisting of nothing but relentlessly unrealised vibratory possibilities. From outside this purely possible world, mind steps in to render some of these possibilities actual and to confer on the resultant phenomenal world those properties of solidity, single-valuedness, and dependability traditionally associated with matter. This kind of general explanation may be enough for philosophers, but physicists want more. They want to know exactly how it all works, in every detail.”
Indeed, the notion that our material reality was not real after all was simply too much for many physicists, and their response at the time was entirely reasonable. No determinism, cause and effect, or arrow of time? What was happening to the foundational principles of classical physics? Many physicists tossed up their hands in dismay, others in disgust. One of those physicists was the extraordinary Albert Einstein himself, the very father of relativity theory, and the most respected physicist in the world. All of this sounded crazy to Einstein. As to the notion that the universe was the construct of little more than the capricious whims of human observation, he supposedly responded with the now famous quote that, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Obviously, he did not agree with the newest speculations of quantum physics.
Einstein bristled at these new interpretations of quantum theory to the point that in 1935 he along with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen issued a thought provoking analysis now known as the EPR (Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen) paper. This analysis was meant to be a clear-headed challenge to the wave function description of matter that had been adopted by many quantum physicists, and described above. The EPR paper insisted that the position and momentum of any given particle had to be able to be measured far more accurately than Heisenberg’s principle allowed for, or else information between certain “entangled” particles (Erwin Schrodinger had previously demonstrated that when quantum systems interact their wave functions become entangled, and they will remain entangled even when no longer interacting) would be theoretically transferred faster than the speed of light, instantaneously in fact, which was a fundamental violation of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
According to the EPR paper, hybrid particles like wave functions, and instantaneous transmissions (what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”) were inelegant solutions clearly out of line with relativity theory, which was the accepted gospel of physics at the time. In that sense, then, the EPR paper was issued as a direct challenge to quantum theory as it was currently being developed.
Bell’s Theorem & a Nonlocal Universe
John Stewart Bell
This was more or less the state of affairs in 1964 when John Stewart Bell entered the picture. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that Bell demonstrated in his theorem that the EPR analysis was right, but that its conclusions were wrong, and that superluminal (faster than light) entanglements were not only possible, but required if quantum theory was to make sense.
Prior to this, physics had always assumed the universe to be local in nature, that is, interactions between physical systems had of necessity to involve a signal transferred by force at a rate below the speed of light. Bell’s theorem, on the other hand, demonstrated that the universe was in fact nonlocal (“a nonlocal effect is an interaction that does not involve force, nor does it involve the transfer of signals, and it happens instantaneously regardless of the distance between objects”), and as a consequence the “spooky action at a distance” Einstein had argued against, was, in fact, a foundational aspect of the universe. Not only that, but within a few years, and repeatedly, Bell’s theorem was tested in the laboratory, and found to be accurate. The science was now clear: we live in a universe that is nonlocal. As Columbia University physicist, Brian Greene, noted, “This is an earth-shattering result. This is the kind of result that should take your breath away.” The fact is, this finding has taken a good many people’s breath away.
And if all of this is not weird enough for you, Philippe Eberhard, then working at Berkeley, soon demonstrated that “no quantum calculation will ever result in an observable superluminal connection between the patterns of individual quantum events.” Nonlocal interactions are thus built into the fabric of the universe, but in such a way that we can never actually observe them. But that does not mean we cannot observe their effects.
For as Herbert explains, “The present situation seems to be as follows: quantum theory is superluminal [faster than the speed of light], quantum reality is superluminal, but quantum appearances are not. Since quantum theories of consciousness assume that the cause of individual quantum events lies in the mental world and Bell’s theorem proves that the causes of some quantum events must be superluminally connected, then we should expect to find some mental events that behave like the Bell connection, that is, human experiences that are unmediated, unmitigated, et cetera.”
In the span of approximately seventy-five years the world of particle physics had been turned upside down, and the philosophical and spiritual implications of this have yet to be fully digested by either science or the public in general. Indeed, the implications are mind-boggling.
Our conceptual understanding of the universe (of which we are all material manifestations) changed from one that might be characterised as a vast, relentless, grinding particle machine, to one that seems almost, well… magical. What other word will do? As physicist Richard Feynman noted, “What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school… It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see my physics students don’t understand it… That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.”
Yet to this day many scientists continue to scoff at any understanding of physics beyond the material boundaries of the classical interpretation, as if all the advancements in quantum theory had never really taken place. We are often lectured that any sort of spiritual or religious belief we may hold are the products of faith alone, discredited convictions rooted in either medieval dogma or rank superstition; that they are simply not scientific.
But today the truth of the matter is actually the polar opposite, for it has been clearly demonstrated that those individuals making these charges are the ones trafficking in faith, in fact clinging to material dogmas that physics has left behind in the dust. Laplace’s material cosmos is now an intellectual relic of the past, overturned, not by faith, but by science.
All is One in the Entangled Universe
It seems to me, for a moment, then, that the seemingly limitless world of the observatory and the minute world of quantum mechanics are far more than even light years apart; that this universe of colossal, spinning galaxies, numbered now to be in the hundreds of billions, and the world of the particle wave function are so intellectually incompatible that today they seem almost alien to one another.
Then again, maybe they are not. For if the Big Bang began with a singularity, as we are told, and a singularity that was infinitely dense, then every particle that has ever emerged was initially contained within this extraordinary particle of infinite density, merged or forged or crushed in some magical way into this one tiny something.
The seeds of our entire universe were fused into that one, and if all were once one then is it not reasonable to speculate that all were entangled at that moment – if indeed it can even be described as a “moment” – and thus quite possibly remain entangled to this day. Suddenly, then, from this perspective, the universe no longer appears to be an alien landscape of far distant, whirling bodies at all, but rather a vast masterpiece of infinite and instantaneous communication – of instant knowing.
As Feynman suggests, what, precisely, the world of quantum mechanics might ultimately be determined to be remains a mystery, and may well remain a mystery some time to come, but what has already been established is surely enough to reformulate our ideas about what the universe is and how it functions. For, while quantum interactions cannot be observed, their effects can nonetheless be experienced, and those experiences can be demonstrated scientifically.
But for now the most important concept for us all to hold onto is that of a vast and connected universe of instantaneous communication and knowing, of a universe that begins to look far more like a conscious organism than it does a grinding material mechanism, and this is far more than mere layman’s interpretation.
Indeed, it was the great British physicist Sir James Jeans who penned the quote heading this article: “The stream of human knowledge is heading toward a non-physical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”
This is a view of reality shared today by many physicists. In all probability we will not have all the answers to the true nature of the universe in our lifetimes, but one thing does seem abundantly clear – the old dogmas of material science have been proven relics of the past, and a new concept of a foundationally conscious universe appears clearly to be arising to take its place. And there, in simple terms, rests the case for human consciousness, for our compassion, and the spirit that binds us all.
May 24, 2019